Star Trek Legend Says Canon Has Never Really Mattered
John Billingsley is serious about the positive impact of Star Trek on the real world. But don’t get bogged down by the details.
For four years, John Billingsley played Dr. Phlox, the resident physician and the first doctor on a Starfleet starship named “Enterprise.” From 2001 to 2005, the prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise took a long road, getting from there to here, and ultimately (and unfairly) became known as the last Trek series for a very long time.
Today, 19 years after it was canceled, John Billingsley feels the reputation of Enterprise is much better than it ever was when it was on the air. But, most urgently, he is more interested in how to use the idealism of the Star Trek universe to help solve a very terrestrial problem: hunger. Ahead of the charity drive Trek Talks 3, Billingsley talked to Inverse about how to make Trek idealism impact the real world, what it was like to make Enterprise, and where he sees the future of the Trek canon headed.
Billingsley serves as the producer of Trek Talks, a charity push that specifically benefits the Hollywood Food Coalition. Now in its third year, this virtual Star Trek convention features an array of online panel discussions with a variety of guests ranging from Johnathan Frakes, Terry Matalas, Tawny Newsome, Michelle Hurd, Jeri Ryan, Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut, and so many more. It’s also hosted by Trek Geeks, TrekMovie, and Roddenberry Entertainment, the company of Rod Roddenberry, son of Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry.
For curious fans, there’s no paywall to view the panels because Billingsley believes that, in the spirit of Star Trek, you have to rely on the honor system. “When you are trying to expand the network, when you're trying to spread the word, you should create entrances,” he says. “Exit signs don’t work. Entrance signs are what you need and lots of 'em.”
Why Star Trek is good for humanitarianism
Like his compassionate character, Dr. Phlox, Billingsley says that combining his work with the Hollywood Food Coalition and Star Trek fandom didn’t seem like a big stretch. “It just seemed a natural fit,” he explains. “Star Trek is rooted in the idea of Federation and of coalition building and of coming together to identify common problems. That struck me as a natural message for the Star Trek audience, and something that we’re doing with the Food Coalition.”
The result of this effort, for Trek fans, is a virtual convention, where fans can ask their nerdiest questions, all in the name of a good cause. For Billingsley, this means he’s presented with even more evidence that Enterprise has more fans in 2024 than it did when it went off the air in 2005.
“Yes, we were the one show that killed the franchise,” Billingsley says jokingly. “But I’ve definitely talked to a lot of people who have come to it with a new appreciation, and I love it. I’m happy about that because it’s a lot easier for me to do Trek Talks and to speak to people in the Trek community if they know who the hell I am! It’s a good thing that Enterprise has partisans now.”
How Enterprise shook up Trek canon — for the better
In 2001, when Enterprise debuted, it initially caused a stir in the Trek fan community, simply because, as Trek’s first prequel, it created a lot of retroactive continuity. Suddenly there was another ship called Enterprise, which pre-dated Pike and Kirk by a century. The uniforms were different, and in episodes like “Affliction,” we learned all sorts of things as to why Klingons look that way. Ditto, “Bound” in which the details of how Orions operate flipped the canon in surprising ways, which really weren’t fully reconciled very recently in Lower Decks.
And yet, because there have been two big prequel series since then — Discovery and Strange New Worlds — the foundation of a lot of modern Star Trek owes a lot to Enterprise. From Billingsley’s point of view, the canon arguments have a certain amount of merit. But only to a point.
“[Star Trek] is a narrative from beginning to end,” Billingsley says. “So, if you completely disregard narrative sense, I can see why fans might feel like this lifelong project has been pissed on. I get that.”
That said, Billingsley is also aware that the fandom of Star Trek is much bigger than the nitty-gritty Trekkies who are keeping track of timelines and canon. Enterprise was canonically controversial then, but perhaps only because it was new at the time.
“Sometimes that's the strength of it, and sometimes I think that's the weakness of it,” Billingsley reflects. “It's like when you're turning the channels, I know immediately when I'm on Star Trek. It registers on my subconscious before it registers on my conscious because I just recognize the visual signature of Star Trek so quickly.”
So, is that visual signature, to an extent, the same thing as canon? Does canon really matter?
“I imagine that the folks who produce Star Trek also get an earful from the 20 percent of fans who aren’t fine with changes,” Billingsley says with a laugh. “But, the great bulk of people are like, I don’t care. I watch television. This is fun. I like watching it. But then they are people deluged with the canon. It can't help but be in the back of the minds of [the people that make Star Trek] that, in an ideal world, we serve both audiences.”